From walk-on to junior college to national champion, Stetson Bennett’s improbable journey inspires athletes everywhere

With confetti raining down in Indianapolis, the Georgia Bulldogs finally won its first national championship in football in 42 years. Of all of the stories in that game, one stood out above the rest. Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett IV should not have been there leading the Bulldogs, but in improbable fashion, from being a walk-on to junior college and back to division one, Bennett finished as a national champion. 

At a young age, Bennett had always been a Georgia fan, attending a count of over 80 games in his younger age. It was always a dream of Stetson’s to become the quarterback for the Bulldogs and Bennett’s dad always supported him in his dream. Stetson the third owned a drug store in Blackshear, Georgia, and also owned an adjacent lot of land to the store. Stetson’s dad did everything in his power to form a football team for his son and he did just that. The Brantley Bandits were the team name, and Stetson the fourth did everything he could to form the team. He asked so many kids from his school to be on the team and it worked. It was just a fun time for the Bennett family and seeing their son become a great football player around some of his best friends was great.

Members of the Brantley Bandits, Stetson’s childhood football team.

In high school, Stetson continued his middle school dominance into the higher level. Attending Pierce County High School, Bennett was always involved in the varsity practices from the start of his freshman year. After a great JV year as a freshman, the Pierce County coaching staff decided that Bennett would be the guy for them starting the next season. Stetson would not disappoint as he led the team to three consecutive state championship appearances. In his senior season, Bennett threw for 3,724 yards and rushed for over 500 yards on the ground. He combined for 40 total touchdowns that season, leading any Georgia high school player in total touchdowns. Although the stats backed up Stetson, college teams were very skeptical because of his small build. At only 5’ 11” and 185 pounds, Bennett’s only FBS scholarship offer was from Middle Tennessee State. He decided to forego any of his offers and become a walk-on at Georgia.

As a walk-on freshman, it was quite obvious that Stetson wouldn’t see much time if any time at all on the field. He sat all season in 2017, watching fellow freshman quarterback Jake Fromm lead the Bulldogs to a national championship appearance where they would lose to fellow SEC powerhouse Alabama. It seemed that Bennett would take a bigger role for the Bulldogs quarterback room heading into the 2018 season, but prominent quarterback recruit Justin Fields had signed to play with Georgia in the 2018 season. This helped Stetson make the decision to transfer to Jones College, a junior college that helped develop Bennett’s game even more.

Stetson as a freshman at Georgia

Almost immediately, Stetson saw success at Jones. In the 12 games he played at Jones, Bennett threw for 1,840 yards, 16 passing touchdowns, and led Jones to a JUCO championship. With all of his accolades now in place, Stetson decided to leave Jones after one season and transfer to a bigger named school in division one. It seemed that Bennett was planning to sign to Louisiana University, but on the day that he would sign to leave Jones, Georgia came calling back. They learned that their star backup quarterback Justin Fields would transfer to Ohio State, and Jake Fromm would be the only prominent QB at Georgia. Stetson signed at Georgia and would come back but this time on full scholarship. 

Stetson playing in the regular-season finale at Jones in his lone season.

Right after Stetson signed, COVID-19 started to surge in the United States, leaving the 2020 season in jeopardy. Early into the summer though, the SEC looked to keep their season in the fall, allowing opt-outs for all players in the NCAA. Bennett was named initially the 3rd string QB on the depth chart behind starter Jamie Newman and backup D’Wan Mathis. Newman would opt-out early on and Mathis would become the starter, putting Bennett in the backup role. Mathis would play poorly though to start 2020 and Bennett took over the starting job for about half of the season. After some not-great performances from Stetson, USC transfer JT Daniels took over at the end of the season and played great after coming back from a torn ACL the previous season. This would put Bennett’s chances of starting the next year in shambles after Daniels put up great numbers. 

Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett (13) warms up while Georgia quarterback JT Daniels (18) looks on during warm-ups before an NCAA college football game between Kentucky and Georgia in Athens, Ga., on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021.
Syndication Online Athens (Joshua L. Jones / USA TODAY NETW)

The 2021 college football season was unlike any other. With fans now being able to watch games at full capacity and great matchups to start the season, things were looking bright. Some big news from the SEC was Bryce Young now being the starting quarterback at Alabama after Mac Jones left for the NFL and the quarterback battle at Georgia. Daniels vs. Bennett was the talk of the town in Georgia to see who would lead the helm for the Bulldogs behind one of the best defenses in college football. The tough test against #3 Clemson to start off would be challenging for the Bulldogs and head coach Kirby Smart had to make the right decision for his team. He chose Daniels over Bennett and it seemed like a good call after beating Clemson to start off the season. In the next game against UAB however, Daniels would suffer an injury, causing Bennett to get thrown into the starting role early in the game. This proved to be the rising moment for Bennett as he threw a record five touchdowns in that game, the most by a Georgia quarterback in one game. Kirby saw that success with Bennett at the starting role and kept him there for the remainder of the season. 

The 2021 season was a success for the Georgia Bulldogs in any manner. Arguably one of the greatest defenses in college football history led the way for the Bulldogs, but Stetson played great himself as well. He tallied 2,862 yards passing and threw for 29 touchdowns. All was well for the Bulldogs at the end of the regular season. Sitting at a perfect 12-0 record, the boys of Savannah looked to be locked in for the College Football Playoff but had to face rival Alabama in the SEC Championship game first before they got there. Georgia got up early thanks to two passing touchdowns from Bennett to his favorite target freshman tight end Brock Bowers. Quickly though, Alabama took over right before halftime and coasted to a win over the Bulldogs 41-24. Questionable play by Bennett in the second half caused many sports analysts to question the decision to start Bennett in the College Football Playoff. It seemed like Georgia would not get anywhere beyond the semifinals, but Kirby Smart elected to back up Bennett. He said that the team wouldn’t have been there without him and stuck with the guy that seemed right for the offense. Little did everyone know, Smart would be right and shut up all the doubters.

Going into a highly touted matchup against the red hot Michigan Wolverines, a lot of analysts seemed to think that it was a toss-up game for both teams. Michigan came off of one of the best stretches in program history, beating #2 Ohio State and #13 Iowa for the Big Ten title. A lot of people picked Georgia to win, but some still believed that Michigan could win and come out firing against the best defense in the nation. With a tandem of running backs in the backfield and solid options at wide receiver, it was all shaping up to be a close game either way. However, Bennett and the Bulldogs offense came out with a vengeance after the loss to Alabama. Georgia was up 14-0 after one quarter of play, swarming the Michigan run and pass game on defense while Stetson did what he did best. He dimed up the Michigan defense all night, throwing three touchdowns and completing two-thirds of his passes. It was a blowout win for the Bulldogs 34-11 and looking at a familiar foe to play against in the national championship.

Georgia’s celebration after the Orange Bowl blowout against Michigan.

Alabama vs. Georgia 2.0 was the talk of the sports world the week leading up to the game, and everyone was talking about how the Saban-led Crimson Tide were yet again underdogs in the matchup according to Vegas. In the previous matchup, ‘Bama was the underdog by over 11 points and blew out the Bulldogs in convincing fashion. In this game, the line was very close but still favored the Bulldogs by 3 points. One thing that bettors and sports fanatics, in general, have learned over the years is to never bet against Saban and this game was no different from that statement. Most of the analysts picked Alabama to win this one while the usual homers picked Georgia to win. Little did they know, Bennett and his Bulldogs would shock the world.

Indianapolis was the site to be at on a frigid Monday in January for the biggest game of the year. As soon as the opening kick sailed through the back of the endzone, Georgia got to work. On their first possession, a field goal gave them a 3-0 lead but it was back and forth from there. Each offense couldn’t get past the other’s defense, causing the game to be a 6-9 stalemate at halftime. No one was expecting this defensive clash, but the offense would pick up in the second half, making the game one of the best watched all season. 

Adonai Mitchell leaping up for the 40-yard touchdown over an Alabama defensive back.

Georgia got the second-half scoring started with a Zamir White rushing touchdown, giving the Bulldogs a 13-9 lead. Alabama answered early in the 4th quarter with a field goal making it 13-12 and then scored a touchdown but failed the 2-point conversion. Now down 18-13, Stetson knew he had to get his offense going and he did just that. Bennett threw a perfect pass to receiver Adonai Mitchell for a 40-yard touchdown strike but failed the 2-point conversion, putting them ahead 19-18 with just over eight minutes left. The stout Georgia defense got a huge stop on the next Alabama possession and Bennett found himself in the position to possibly put the knife in the coffin and secure a national title. The Bulldogs offense marched down the field with ease in 7 plays, covering nearly 70 yards, and finished it off with a Bennett strike to Brock Bowers for an 18-yard touchdown. With the extra point and 3 minutes remaining, Georgia was up 26-18. Despite the lead, Alabama’s offense was amazing, but the loss of star receiver Jameson Williams hurt the Tide even more. Now in Georgia territory, Bryce Young had all the pieces together to tie the game up. He dropped back on a second down and threw an out route to his left. It looked to be a complete pass but defensive back Keelee Ringo, the same guy who returned the pick-six at the beginning of the year, intercepted Young’s pass. It looked like he was going to go down but instead with blockers in front of him, he took it to the house and put the dagger in Alabama for good. Georgia won 33-18, solidifying its first national title since 1980.

Bennett won the game’s MVP and finally finished the journey that a lot of people would look at as improbable. From walk-on to junior college to now starter, MVP, and national champion for the best program in college football. Bennett has now motivated everyone around him and people on a similar journey to never give up because you can make something out of nothing.